December 6, 2005

San Francisco mulls Chinatown sidewalk selling ban

By Michael Kahn

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Lao Wu stands among the crates of
dried fish and fruit piled outside his small shop and scoffs
when asked about a city proposal to ban selling goods on
sidewalks in the heart of this city's fabled Chinatown.

He points to a delivery man dodging traffic and maneuvering
a pushcart through the middle of bustling Stockton Avenue as
proof a ban would do little to unclog the sidewalks in one of
the largest U.S. Chinatowns.

"People are doing this every day," said Wu. "It is more
convenient to people if they can just buy things on the

The proposed sidewalk sales ban pits one of the most
progressive U.S. cities against merchants like Wu who fear a
crackdown on the way Chinatown has conducted business for
decades. They say a ban would hurt sales and dull a colorful
neighborhood popular with locals and tourists alike.

But city officials, who have scheduled a December 13
meeting to consider the proposal, see the issue as one of
public safety on the streets of San Francisco.

They say overflowing merchandise on sidewalks forces
pedestrians to walk on a busy street made more hazardous by
double-parked delivery trucks that may not move all day.

"It is a constant complaint we hear about when we go to
community meetings," said Department of Public Works spokesman
Christine Falvey. "People can sell merchandise from sidewalks
while maintaining a safe atmosphere for pedestrians, but at the
moment it is not happening."

At issue is a five-block area along this Chinatown street
catering mainly to Chinese shoppers where freshly cut fish and
newly butchered meat fills sidewalk stands along with fruits,
vegetables, spices and a wide range of household goods.

During a typically busy week-day morning pedestrians joust
their way through shoppers spilling from dozens of packed
storefronts as delivery men carry merchandise and piles of
pallets and fruit boxes sit stacked on the sidewalks.

The hectic scene is one foes of the ban describe as part of
the unique fabric that makes up one of the most vibrant
neighborhoods in San Francisco. They also say many of the
cramped shops need the extra space to keep afloat.

"If we can't arrange our goods outside, it will hurt our
business," said shopkeeper Pang Lian.

"This is Chinatown. If they won't allow us to put things
outside, we won't have enough room inside."

Under current city law, merchants can display items on the
sidewalk if they leave six feet of space open for pedestrians
and pay a one-time fee of $110 along with $7 per square foot
for the area they use. Delivery hours are not restricted but
double-parking is illegal.

At the December 13 meeting, the city's public works chief
will take input from residents before deciding whether to
impose the ban. But people like Pang say nothing city officials
do to curtail sidewalk selling will make the streets of San
Francisco's Chinatown any safer.

"It's not because of us," she said. "People here just don't
obey traffic lights."